Chaplain, I wonder if you have ever thought of devising a series of chapel sermons on the female saints who are depicted here in Chapel? There are enough of them! I can see four clearly represented in the fresco on the north side of the chapel, behind the choir: Monica, Helena, Catherine of Siena, and Elizabeth of Hungary. And then on the south side, again behind the choir, there are others who died as martyrs: you can see Catherine (with her wheel), Perpetua, and Cecila (with her pipes). There are two others, on the floor of the Chapel, set amongst the twelve mosaics of the kings, scholars, martyrs and builders of the church in England: the mosaics lead up to the lectern as you enter the Chapel. The two female saints are the first you’ll walk over: if you look down you’ll see the names Etheldrida and Frideswida.
These two mosaics create an interesting pair, for these saints’ lives, some fifty years apart, share several details. Saint Etheldrida, from East Anglia, lived in the late seventh century, and her hagiography (some of it mediated through Bede) informs us that she was from a wealthy and noble family but obliged to marry against her will – twice, for her first husband died. Threatened with cruelty and violation, she left her home and found sanctuary in a small mixed monastic community at Ely. There she eventually became Abbess. After her death, her shrine attracted many stories of miracles of healing; by the eleventh century she was known as the patron saint of Ely and its Cathedral.
So what of Saint Frideswida, the subject of this sermon? Her hagiography (which is not recounted by Bede) tells us that she too was born into a wealthy and noble family, in the eight century, in southern Mercia – perhaps somewhere near what we now know as Didcot. Unlike Etheldrida, she took her vows of poverty, chastity and obedience at an early age and became part of a small community of nuns here at ‘Oxenford’. But –and here this has some parallels with the Etheldrida story – she was persistently threatened by an aggressive suitor, Aelfgar, a minor prince of Mercia; apparently she escaped in a boat down the Thames, and hid for some time in the forests of Mercia in order to escape Aelfgar’s attentions. On her return to her convent, her suitor apparently sought her again, almost breaking the city gates of Oxenford to take her by force: Frideswida invoked the help of the martyr-saints Catherine and Cecila, and Aelfgar was afflicted with blindness. His sight was eventually restored through Frideswida’s prayers for his repentance: neither she nor Oxenford was threatened again. The story then follows a similar pattern to Etheldrida: Frideswida established a community of monks and nuns, here at Oxford, near the city’s southern walls, near the future site of Christ Church, where she became Abbess. Later in life she retired to a small hermitage at Binsey, but after her death was probably buried in her monastery in Oxford. Her shrine also attracted hundreds of pilgrims, as it too was the source of many miracles.
By the twelfth century St. Frideswide’s Priory had become part of the Augustinian order and this in turn became the foundation of Christ Church Cathedral. Somewhere between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries Frideswide became the patron saint of Oxford and its Cathedral: certainly by the late fourteenth century, Chaucer, in The Miller’s Tale, allows John, provincial carpenter of Oxford, to invoke her name as his patron saint.
Some would argue that this is the stuff that legends are made of. A noble woman escapes in a boat down the Thames and hides in the woods from a prince who has a fettish about nuns; we read that she lived in a hut with swine and she encountered the devil who smelt like sulphur; that she had the power to bring about both blindness and sight, and could heal lepers. She even created springs of water which creates Binsey’s well.
Indeed, there’s an apocryphal story that in 1933 the shortest sermon on record was given at Christ Church at the Feast of St Frideswide. ‘Saint Frideswide’ said the preacher, Canon Jenkins, ‘Saint Frideswide never existed’ . End of sermon!
Even if this is right, in our day, Christ Church Cathedral certainly provides evidence for the cult of Frideswide, even though here may be little solid factual information of the saint herself. In the Latin Chapel her twelfth-century shrine has been reconstructed from its post-Reformation remains, and at least some of her relics, apparently mixed with those of another woman, are said to lie inside it. Also in the Latin Chapel there’s a magnificent pre-Raphaelite stained glass window, designed by Edward Burne-Jones in the 1850s, showing dramatic details of Fridewide’s life. And in the Lady Chapel there is a paving stone carved with her name, where the anniversary of her death, somewhere in the 720s or 730s, is commemorated on October 19th each year.
So why was Canon Jenkins so cynical about Frideswide’s life and death? Mainly it’s because her historical record is so unclear. Even if there were written accounts, the fire at St Frideswide’s Priory in 1002 must have destroyed everything. There are a few early references to her monastery and to ‘Oxenford, where the blessed body of Frideswide rests’ but the first written record of the actual events in her life comes from the Latin historian William Malmesbury (from the very same monastery which provided the first monks here at Gloucester College) and this was in about 1125, some four hundred years after Frideswide’s death. William had visited the shrine of Frideswide at Oxford and also the holy well at Binsey and he put together the story of her life from what he had heard there, perhaps even influenced by the stories from Ely of Etheldrida. Part of this was told in our first lesson tonight, in Ruth Buckley’s vivid modern translation. However, not only is there a long interval between Frideswide’s life and William’s short ‘biography’, but also his account is in part contradicted by a slightly later longer one. This latter record embellishes the first one, informing us more about the monastic ideals in the twelfth century than those in Frideswide’s day: it is fascinated by the tensions between married life and monastic vows, by noble ladies escaping from royal suitors, and it dwells upon the glorification of the saints because of their miracles and it exalts in the virtues of virginity. So we are forced to ask: was the Frideswide cult which grew up in Oxford one of Frideswide herself, or about some imaginary figure? Does it matter?
This issue is something I deal with every single day I research or teach. When I use the Old Testament, I have to ask myself: are the figures in it, to put it starkly, real or imaginary? The further back in history we go, the more difficult it is, with limited sources, to answer this question, because most of the Bible’s characters are rarely referred in sources outside the Bible. Sometimes archaeology can help; sometimes comparative material is enlightening. But mostly what we read in stories of the Old Testament are not found anywhere other than in the Old Testament. So when we read of the fantastic miracles and heroic exploits of, say, the prophets Elijah and Elisha, I have to ask the question: are we really encountering the lives of these prophets, or are we reading stories which others have imagined about them? This applies to so many Old Testament characters – to Moses, set in the thirteenth century BCE, to David, from about 1000 BCE, and to Amos, in the seventh century BCE. It’s even an issue, some seven centuries later, within the New Testament, concerning Jesus Himself. When we read the variant stories in the Gospels and see how they contradict each other – stories as important as the resurrection, for example – we have to ask ourselves: do we put our faith first, and history second? Is our quest one of ‘faith seeking historical understanding’? This issue matters a good deal when it comes to the birth and death of Jesus Christ. But it also matters, perhaps in a lesser way, with the figures who came before, such as Amos, some seven centuries earlier; and it matters, too, with figures who follow afterwards – figures such as Frideswide, some seven centuries later.
Frideswide as the patron saint of Oxford City and Oxford University is a curious phenomenon: for whatever we make of her life, her story certainly has some extraordinary details. Why did the priests and canons of the Cathedral elect a female saint? We all know that Oxford University, until the first part of the twentieth century, did not even admit women to its membership. And why did they choose one whose life was so ill-documented? Not even Bede referred to her. And why did they choose a woman who preferred a life of prayer and teaching to an ordinary family life? Most women in the Middle Ages would have aspired to marriage and bearing children. And why did they choose someone whose fame, in the main, was due to the many healing miracles which were recorded after her death?
Perhaps you can see where I am going. The subversive elements in Frideswide’s story have corresponding elements in the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Why chose a carpenter’s son? Why is his life first documented only by those who were already persuaded by him? Why do we follow one who, unlike most of us, refused the comforts of family life and chose instead a life of prayer and teaching? Why does our faith have to rest so much on the miraculous, not least on the greatest miracle of all, his resurrection from the dead? Why is his life so unpredictable – so subversive? Yet, as the writer James Francis records the ‘solitary life’ of Jesus Christ has inspired millions: “All the armies that ever marched, all the parliaments that ever sat, all the kings that ever reigned are absolutely picayune in their influence on mankind compared with this one solitary life” .
In making these comparisons I am not in any way suggesting that there are absolute parallels between Frideswide and Jesus Christ. We know far more about the history of Jesus from outside the Bible’s accounts than we do about Frideswide’s history; and the effects of that ‘solitary life’ of Jesus Christ have of course had dramatic universal repercussions, compared with the local cult of an Oxford saint. It is clear that Frideswide is the servant, and Jesus Christ is the Master. But this is what sainthood is about: saints are those who, through prayer and constant communion with God, stand midway between Christ’s exceptional life and our all too human existence. Jesus name means ‘Saviour’; Frideswide’s means ‘Bond of Peace’. He brings redemption into the world; Frideswide testifies to that redemption by living peaceably in a restless world, knowing that, like Jesus himself, neither rank nor gender ultimately matter in the presence of God.
So in her distinctive way, as a woman in a male world, yet with a free and independent spirit, St. Frideswide point us to Jesus Christ, her only Saviour and only Lord. She shows us of the relevance of our New Testament reading tonight: ‘If you think that you are wise in this age, you need to become fools so that you may become wise… For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; …. God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God’.
So perhaps this is what the story of Frideswida, and also that of Etheldrida, and indeed the stories of all the female saints in this Chapel can teach us: that the true servant of Christ has the boldness of faith to live out that ‘holy wisdom’ which subverts the so-called wisdom of their age. So, despite some skepticism about many details, Frideswide’s story is, for me, real, not imaginary. She challenges us all to aspire to servanthood, even if sainthood is too high an ideal. Our lives may never be depicted on the walls or floors of a chapel, nor glorified in stained glass, nor written on a stone pavement; but if we seek to find and interpret the wisdom of God offered through Jesus Christ, then to hear the words ‘Well done, good and faithful servant!’ should be reward enough.
Dr. Susan Gillingham, Fellow in Theology
22nd January 2012